Story of the Sustainable Development Goals

Rare it is that large groups can agree to cooperate on working together to achieve meaningful outcomes. Even rarer is that very large groups, at the scale of nations, with their disparate histories and diverging viewpoints would think of doing this. And rarest of all is the possibility that the nations of the world would come together, identify the most urgent issues facing humankind, travel the globe and meet numerous times in widespread places to hammer out goals and strategies that could make a real difference for the future.

That is the story of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Building on a prior, rather cursory, one-sided and asymmetrical exercise carried out a dozen years earlier, which produced the 15-year rule of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the successor SDG movement started as an idea to inject value into the global negotiations that were preparing for the 2nd Earth Summit, Rio+20 to be held in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. With high and growing commitment from some governments, starting with several Latin American ones and a large number of civil society organisations; the movement to pin the world’s leaders down to making specific, well-defined and even quantitative pledges gathered sufficient momentum to receive approval and a go ahead at the Rio Conference.

Barring the usual issues of global politics, lack of responsibility beyond narrowly defined national interests, professed financial constraints and other hurdles that often prevent such exercises from taking off, there was the whole question of who would set the agenda and who would decide on the content of the final agreement, assuming that a body of agreeable propositions was to be found. The two viable options came down to: should it be the international (i.e. UN) system as a body, or the Governments acting under the aegis of the UN General Assembly that would be the overall coordinators. Fortunately, the task was big enough to allow virtually all actors to take ownership of the processes and make major contributions to the end result. This was particularly made possible by the fact that the inter-government process, called the ‘Open Working Group’ took its title seriously and was open to the widest variety of participants.

We now have the SDGs, formally to be adopted by the world community at the General Assembly in September 2015, a body of 17 Goals comprising 169 Targets. Together, these provide a clear roadmap for the next 15 years during which the governments, civil society and businesses are committed to eliminating the worst deprivations that have afflicted human society over the past few centuries: poverty, hunger, lack of opportunity and environmental destruction.

What has made the SDG process different from earlier efforts to design a sustainable future for the world is the deep commitment and actual adherence to the principles of transparency and participation, so often ignored in the past. With inputs from all governments, sectors, professional bodies and civil society; this has been by far the richest and most fruitful negotiation undertaken by the world community.

What promises to make the SDGs more likely to deliver results is the solid attention given during the entire process to the ‘means of implementation’, which not only dealt with the need to mobilise finance, technology and institutions and the role of trade and national polices but also to make the whole rollout accountable. By setting up the High Level Political Forum and relying on bottom up monitoring and reporting (from the local and national to the regional and global), followed by committing to ‘reward’ rather than ‘punishment’ systems that reinforce positive behaviour by governments and other actors; the SDGs may well have superior chances of delivering a better world for all.  q

Dr Ashok Khosla


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